Taking the ‘P’ out of Planning

Having attended the party conferences and read the various policy statements, it is hard not to conclude that the main political parties are all at sea in understanding how to reform a planning system which is not fit for purpose.

All of them identify planning’s role in addressing the housing crisis, none of them seem to see the need for a more fundamental approach which takes the ‘P’ out of Planning. By ‘P’ of course, I mean the ‘politics’. In particular, the politics where lay and untrained local councillors can frustrate the professionalism of officers, ignore policy, incur multi-million-pound delays and frustrate much needed housing delivery.

Before anyone thinks this is yet another technocratic rant against local democracy, I have been a District councilor and sat on a planning committee, so I know that many councillors are capable, and well-intentioned. This doesn’t alter the fact that our system of political oversight and decision-making is simply not working.

At BECG we see countless examples of senseless delays, frustrating housing delivery, when the policy position, officer support and thanks to PINS, final outcome, is often very predictable.

Councillors can be in a difficult position. They may understandably champion very local groups over the wider public interest because they live in the immediate locality. Often Members on planning committees just don’t have the training, professional experience and necessary detachment from local pressures, to determine often highly complex and inevitably controversial issues.

Some see this dysfunction as the necessary price of democracy. In this view local political decision-making might be inconsistent, time-consuming and perverse, but at least development decisions are made by those directly affected. Local councillors representing local people in the context of national policy.

Except that this is often just not true. Party politics at local level is too frequently the domain of narrow party cabals, detached from the community they serve. Too often planning committees reflect an unrepresentative demographic.  Too often, political realities mean that the balance of political control is at odds with effective decision-making. A council with a one-party majority might be well-run, or equally could be hopelessly obstructive. A ‘hung’ council might mean a planning free-for all where no one can predict outcomes or that councillors are forced to work constructively across the political divide.

The very word ‘local’ is problematic. We don’t live in clear-cut communities with easily identified common interests. There are always competing views on development and ‘local’ can mean very different things depending on how you define the community and the interest. Should the street determine the interest of the Parish? Should the District trump the wider interests of a Region?  Should the views of property-owners triumph over those who need homes or existing residents’ over incomers? We often talk about the ‘community’ when we mean particular interests that can exclude other ‘communities’.

It is of course precisely because planning is a question of balancing relative interests that the current system emphasizes local political control.  My argument is that the political part of the process could be radically improved.

Planning decision-making process is hopelessly inconsistent. Why can applicants or residents speak at some committees and not others? Why do some planning councillors approach planning like a quasi-legal timebomb and refuse to engage with anyone, whilst others play an active role in shaping submissions? Why do some Councils encourage early meetings with the planning committee, whilst others make it an article of faith that the committee should be insulated from all such influences?

What would reforming the ‘political’ part of planning look like? Firstly, let’s have clear national rules enforced consistently across all LPAs. The scope of pre-application engagement, speaking rights at committee and how Members engage with the applicants and the community, are all areas where it should be possible to bring greater consistency and improve decision-making.

But surely with imagination we can be even more radical. BECG works extensively on national infrastructure projects where engagement falls within the NSIP process. Detailed community consultation is undertaken, but the ultimate decision is left to a well-resourced and expert national inspector, with all the local politics taken away.

Why don’t we link housing delivery, to wider infrastructure and fast-track the extent to which housing can be delivered through the NSIP process? Why not use the best of both planning regimes to create at a regional level, a new planning inspectorate, established under the auspices of PINS, but drawing on the resources of the LPAs in the region?

Operating under regional political structures drawn from from a range of Local Authorities, these inspectorates would be under both political supervision and direction, and crucially, they would reflect the perspective of a much wider region rather than the Local Authority where the site may sit.

Perhaps, given the politics of planning and the reluctance of all political parties to challenge their local base, creating new regional inspectorate is an unrealistic fantasy. What is clear is that the political side of planning could be vastly improved and indeed must be if we are to address the UK’s housing and infrastructure challenge.

This article first appeared in Housebuilder Magazine’s November edition. You can view it here.